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Written by Ruth Hill with photographs by Dion Howard, this article originally appeared in Freerange Volume 2: Gardening & Violence in 2009, edited by Barnaby Bennett and Gina Moss.
A small organic holding in sunny Otaki, New Zealand, sprouting kids and pigs and walnut trees, seems a world away from the devastation of war-torn Iraq. But for Adrian and Shelley Leason, the two are intimately connected.
A hail of arrows, knives and tomahawks fly through the air as Adrian Leason strolls through the paddock pushing a wheelbarrow full of small children.
“Gardens are violent places,” he muses.
“Full of creatures eating other creatures, plants struggling for primacy, strangling other plants….”
He pauses by a small bonfire.
“I’m not happy about that fire, boys,” he remonstrates gently with his older sons, who are practising their marksmanship on distant targets with a variety of weapons.
“Piss on it, please.”
This peaceful rural idyll is home to Adrian and Shelley and their semi-feral tribe of beautiful children – Jack (13), Finn (11), Che (9), Mana (6), Ari (4), Samuel (2) and Davy (born in April). The Leasons have rejected many of trappings of modern life, including television, but the couple have ensured their family is attuned to world events in a way many of us manage to comfortably avoid.
Last April, Adrian—together with Dominican friar Peter Murnane and Hokianga farmer Sam Land—broke into the Waihopai spy base in Blenheim, using insulated bolt cutters to get through the electric fences, and slashed the giant weather dome over one of the satellite interception dish using two $10 sickles bought from Bunnings.
The trio, who call themselves the Anzac Ploughshares, are defending charges of unlawful entry and wilful damage costing $1 million.
“I don’t know if they put it out for tender—I reckon if they’d shopped around, they could have got a better deal,” says Adrian.
“With a couple of rolls of gaffer tape and some embroidery, I reckon we could have fixed it up, better than new.”
Ploughshares came out of the protest movement against the Vietnam War in the 1970s and its members, including many nuns and priests, have been involved in more than 100 protest actions around the world, disarming weapons and damaging defence bases.
The group takes its name from the Old Testament prophecy: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares” or turn weapons of destruction into tools of productivity. Adrian says he and Shelley have adopted the values of the Catholic Workers’ Organisation: hospitality, hard work and “personalism”—the divine imperative to take it personally.
“The direct action at Waihope was about three people acting responsibly and showing solidarity with our Islamic brothers and sisters.
“Their lifestyle is about “living a life that makes it easy to be good”.
“It’s all about freedom. My favourite song at the moment has the lines ‘no man’s slave, no man’s master’ and that’s us.
“I work alongside my partner and our kids and visitors and everyone is there because they want to be and everyone enjoys the fruit of their labours.
“At the end of the day, you don’t feel like you need to shower off the dirt of the city. It’s good honest dirt.”
The rich soil of the Otaki is supposed to be so fertile you could plant a stick and it would sprout. However, feeding a family of seven from two hectares still takes a fair bit of work. They recently harvested a bumper crop of potatoes – 11 sacks – and this summer have also enjoyed tomatoes, cucumbers and every green-leafed vegetable known to man. The stream flooded last year toppling an ancient walnut tree, much to Shelley’s sorrow. But the roots held firm and the tree lies on its side and continues to yield nuts, which are now much easier to access.
They bought the place three years ago in June, after four years living in a slum in Thailand, working on a community development project with a Kiwi NGO and a brief stint for Adrian working as a senior advisor with Child Youth and Family.
Shelley says they were profoundly changed by their experiences in Thailand.
“I remember sitting down together at the table in our little house in the slum with a blank piece of paper and asking ourselves ‘who are we now and what do we really want to do with our lives?’.
“Their original plan was to find land and build their own place, but events overtook them. Adrian’s elderly mother needed nursing and did not want to move further north. The big sprawling bungalow with the wraparound porch and established garden was perfect. Adrian’s mother died at home with her family. A couple of months later, little Samuel was born in the same room. It’s a house full of life.
Adrian says the move to the country was “as much about what we didn’t want to be into as about what we were into”.
“There are others who have been doing this much longer and have much more to show for it, but we’ve got our own neo-Amish philosophy, which is to enjoy as little as possible.”
He doesn’t mean they have a joyless life – far from it. For the Leasons, it’s all about finding pleasure in the simple things: people, food and honest work. In an age when children are being marketed to aggressively from every angle, the Leasons kids are endearingly unmaterialistic. They make their own fun.
As we arrive, they are just back from eeling in the creek, using giant bows and arrows barbed with what look like baling hooks. The eels proved elusive today.
There would be few 13-year-olds who would be quite as delighted as Jack was to get a jar of homemade “tit grease” for his birthday. However, when your job is to milk Ruby the cow every day, anything that makes that chore a little smoother is enthusiastically welcomed. Because they have fresh milk every day, they don’t need a fridge.
Neither is there a freezer, jug or toaster… Their one concession to modern convenience is a washing machine, but Shelley plans to retire it when the kids are old enough to do their own handwashing. She has already installed a couple of wringers and a row of tubs.
The wet-back stove cooks their food, boils their water, warms the house and heats the hot water. There’s a windmill for irrigation, and they’re saving to buy solar panels to power the lights.
Adrian has built an impressive double-seater composting toilet, and during Shelley’s latest confinement he and the kids busied themselves constructing a giant tree house in the old macrocarpa, complete with double bed, deck and fireman’s pole.
It’s not surprising the kids have no time for school. While Adrian does a little casual relief teaching, which gives them some hard currency to buy the few things they can’t grow or make themselves, the Leason kids are homeschooled.
Adrian says they feel privileged to have the time to educate their kids themselves. “I know a lot of teachers have regrets they spent so much of their energy over 30 years on other people’s children and didn’t have much left for their own.”
As well as the usual curriculum, the Leason children are also getting a “political education”.
“Whatever happens [with the court case], it’s an excellent learning opportunity for them,” says Adrian.
“New Zealand has so much going for it—we have a fantastic political system and select committee process, a well-trained and professional police force, no corruption, little pollution… the fabric of our society is as good as it gets in my probably biased opinion.
“But with this comes a responsibility to speak out when we see a wrong being done in our name.” Gardening is an honest profession and the Waihopai action was also “honest”, he says.
“It wasn’t a hit and run, we didn’t run away.”
In fact, it took 15 minutes for the guards to arrive, by which time, the three men had set up a makeshift altar on an upturned wine-box, complete with an icon of Jesus, a picture of the assassinated El Salvadorean archbishop Oscar Romero, written protest statements and a burning candle.
They were all wearing Anzac poppies. Adrian says the Ploughshares action touched a chord with many New Zealanders, who felt deeply concerned about the war in Iraq and the Government’s “complicity”.
“One million Iraqis have died as a direct result of that war of aggression.
“Kiwis, we need to ask ourselves why we hate the Iraqis so much that we would be involved in the destruction of their schools and hospitals?
“Why do we have such a close military and trade relationships with the United States despite watching this mass murder take place on the TV screens before our eyes?
“Freedom allows us not only to wring our hands and shake our heads but freedom allows us to take peaceful, non-violent direct action against the symbols of violence and against the motifs of militarism and a culture of fear.”
They are still waiting for a date for their trial and have opted for trial by jury. Adrian says they take heart from a number of high profile cases overseas, in which those charged were acquitted.
“We believe that a jury of Kiwis will be open-minded enough to see the justice of our action.”
In 2012, The Anzac Ploughsares were found ‘not guilty’ on all charges. The Crown filed a civil claim seeking damages amounting to $1.2m, but they were dropped unexpectedly in 2014, most likely to deter further disclosure and scrutiny of the GCSB. See the Press Release from the Peace Movement Aotearoa for more information. -Freerange.